G. O'Keefe always did things her own way. Today, she carries that independent streak to new heights.
The 5-year-old mare named in honor of the famous painter embarks on a rare, if not unprecedented, mission for a thoroughbred: become a mother and win a race later the same year.
Six and a half months after giving birth to a healthy colt, G. O'Keefe will return to competition today in the eighth race at Laurel Park. Should she win, or come back to win before the end of the year, she could make history for her trainer, Donald Barr, and owners, Chris and Tom Bowman and Milton P. Higgins III.
She would make it quietly, though, because no line exists in the record books for such an accomplishment. Mares have won races while in foal, and mares occasionally have returned to the races after giving birth and won in subsequent years. But a survey of state and national specialists turned up no knowledge of a mare giving birth, returning to training and posing in the winner's circle later that year -- although some said it must have happened sometime.
The connections of G. O'Keefe set her on this course after seeing her this summer in a field at the Bowmans' Roland Farm near Chesapeake City. She had given birth April 30 to a colt by the top Maryland sire Two Punch.
"That mare looks good enough that we could put her back into training," said Barr, the Laurel Park trainer.
Higgins and the Bowmans, long-time partners in breeding and owning horses, concurred.
"Now we're on a mission," Barr said last week outside Barn 21 at Laurel Park.
They're on a mission with a four-time stakes-winning mare whose racing success belied her early timidity, bizarre behavior and dramatic exit over a fence before her first race.
Higgins and the Bowmans bred G. O'Keefe from the mating of the sire Smarten and the mare Artful Girl. Higgins named the baby G. O'Keefe out of respect for the painter Georgia O'Keeffe. But when Higgins submitted the name he inadvertently omitted an "f" from O'Keeffe.
G. O'Keefe flashed her independence early, keeping to herself and even avoiding other foals in her Roland Farm paddock. After arriving at Barr's barn at Laurel, the 2-year-old filly continued her bizarre ways. When another horse came too close or approached the wrong way on the track, she bolted and tried to run back to the barn.
Barr and his employees tried everything. Even Higgins, one of her owners, accompanied her to and from the track on his pony. Finally, late in 1996, they decided she was ready to race.
But during the post parade at Laurel Park, G. O'Keefe saw something or became spooked by the pony trying to walk next to her. She reared, tossed her jockey and took off down the track.
She jumped a fence at the far turn and streaked off into the stable area. Barr, her trainer, ran to his car and sped back to the barn.
"When I got there," Barr said, "she was standing in the barn in her stall with her tack and number on."
A couple of weeks later, after more schooling in the mornings, they tried again. This time, in January 1997, the newly turned 3-year-old behaved in the post parade and then finished second in her race debut.
Higgins said that continued patience and "TLC," especially from her groom Denny Banjoman, allowed G. O'Keefe to develop into "the best horse she could be." That turned out to be a winner of half her 16 races, including four stakes at Laurel. She earned $265,420.
On a three-race winning streak (all stakes) in April 1998, G. O'Keefe incurred a slight tendon injury. She was 4. Her owners decided to retire her -- or so they thought -- and breed her to Two Punch. She carried the foal 12 months -- one month longer than usual -- before giving birth April 30 to a demanding, oversized colt.
The birth was difficult, but G. O'Keefe bounced back. A month later she was bred to the stallion Polish Numbers but did not become pregnant. Not long after that Barr suggested they bring her back to the racetrack after weaning the foal from her, and then try breeding her again next year. All concerned agreed, with the stipulation that the moment anything went wrong they would van G. O'Keefe back to the farm.
Everything has gone right so far. Through a series of jogs, gallops and breezes, G. O'Keefe regained her sleek, muscular appearance and recaptured her competitive desire. Tom Bowman, one of her owners and also a veterinarian, said motherhood has agreed with her.
"Maybe this maternal stuff made her more attentive," he said. "She's all business now. Physically, she's more muscular and more mature than when she was on top of her game."
Higgins and Barr said they don't expect G. O'Keefe to win today because three quarters of a mile, the distance of the race, is not her forte. She prefers 1 1/8 miles or even 1 1/4 miles. So this is a prep for next time, if there is a next time, putting G. O'Keefe into position possibly to make history.